The scout motioned from up ahead, and the armed insurgents forged up the winding trail. Though hauling a gravely wounded comrade, they moved with stealth. A deep sable sky offered a pale moon to light their path. A steady wind rattled the trees and combed the tall grass.
The force of twenty paused near the top of the hill in sight of a pallid old edifice. Their eyes scanned the stylishly embroidered windows for the subtlest of movements. Their ears sifted the breeze for any sound that the wind might whisper. Still watchful and keeping in formation, they moved like phantoms around to a side entrance.
Strategically spaced, the motley-attired group entered the house. By units and in search and destroy mode, they searched the cobwebbed and splintered old mansion. Their blue beams of light crisscross the darkness like the light sabers. With the house swept, their movements were less guarded.
The kalunking of their heavy boots against the parquet floors resonated throughout the spacious rooms. The house was bear except for a few sticks of dusty furniture. What little furniture there was seemed as out place in the elegant old manor as sandwiches at an opera.
The group, in workman-like fashion, hoist wooden planks up to the windows and bolted the doors. With the entry points secured, they spread out their backpacks, weapons and sleeping bags over the ballroom floor. Finally, their wounded comrade was bedded down upstairs, the fireplace was lit and supper was prepared. There was only stale bread, vegetable broth, and water. Tristan, tall, blond, and strapping, paced while the others ate. He was also the only one still holding on to his weapon, other than the two lookouts posted in the upstairs windows. Twice he peeked through the firing slits in the planks.
“Monroe, after you and Mooch finish, I need you to get upstairs and spell Lee and Asija. They need to get some of this in them. Monroe, a pit bull of a man, threw down the last of his meal and stood up.
“Tristan, maybe we shouldn’t stay the night here,” whined Monroe. “ Tristan, I’ve got a bad feeling about this place.”
“Monroe, we’ll be fine here.”
“ But, Monrovia’s secret police have killed or captured everyone associated with the underground. If the police can’t beat it out of them, there’s Monrovia. Some say that she can read minds.”
“If she could read out thoughts, don’t you think she would have read ours? In which cast, her assassins would be crawling all over this place,” answered Tristan. Tristan response left Monroe shaking his head.
“Monroe, it’s going to be okay,” interrupted Isabella. Her surveillance crafts and spy cams should pick us up long before Monrovia sees the need to pull herself away from her queenly duties.” Monroe eyes searched Isabella’s face, before he belted out a hearty laugh. The others soon joined him.
Isabella was a stunning beauty with a long, dark tress that she wore in ponytail. Here velvety soft skin was the color of the Sahara and her eyes were as soothing as a summer drizzle. Isabella was peculiar mixture of tomboy and Sunday school teacher. Still chuckling, Monroe motioned to Mooch to follow him upstairs. Tristan and Isabella exchanged long glances before Tristan grabbed up a bowl of broth and sat down to eat.
After the fire died down, the group bedded down for the night. Suddenly, a tapping sound, mimicking the cadence of a dripping faucet, pieced the sack time chatter. Sitting up, they stared at each other. Then, just like that, the sound was gone. But, before they could relax back into their calm uneasiness, there it was again. The group sprang to their feet, clutching their weapons.
Tristan gestured with his weapon in the direction of the adjacent dinning room. By candlelight, Tristan crept across the room, snatching up a flashlight as he went. The others followed, spread out behind him. Stopping just short of the doorway, Tristan pointed to Lee and Asija, who had just descended the stairs and was closest to the connecting door. Tristan silently counted to three, and he, Lee and Asija charged the room, the muzzles of the guns obeying the blue shaft of light.
The room was still more shadow than substance. And first, no one spotted the blanketed shape occupying the far corner. Isabella then entered with a large candle, chasing back the shadows.
“It would seem that we have a guest,” Tristan whispered, as he killed the beam and moved on the balls of his feet toward the blanketed shape. Guns pointed, the group closed in.
“Whoever you are, show yourself. You have nothing to fear from us.” As they closed in, it became apparent that it wasn’t a blanket at all, but someone clothed in a hooded robe. “Trent, you and De Andre have a look outside, ordered Tristan. And, tell Monroe to keep his eyes open.” Tristan had moved within arms distance of the hooded figure as the others fanned out to the sides. Just as he was about to reach out and prod the robe with the nose of his weapon, it robe moaned. The stranger, still shrouded by the hood, attempted to stand. After several tried, the intruder lapsed back against the wall.
“I think he’s hurt,” said Lee.
“Maybe he’s wounded,” posed Asija.
“He’s not hurt or wounded, you dopes,” Isabella insisted. “Can’t you see he’s just an old man?” There was a collective sigh as their automatic weapons descended to their sides. Isabella pushed pass Tristan and the others and went and kneeled down beside the stranger. “No one is going to hurt you. Are you able to talk? The men nodded and slowly removed his hood.
His skin was chestnut-brown, and his hair cloud-colored.
“Well, what are all you gawking at?” asked Isabella. You act like you’ve never seen an old man. Come and let’s get you in the other room where it’s warmer. Are you able to walk?” she asked.
“Yes,” the man murmured. With the utmost care, Isabella helped him to his feet. His movements were steady, but hunched and slow. She sat him down near the fire. The glowing light exposed an elderly, but gently aged face. His sharp eyes scanned the curious faces. Then he lowered his gaze to the floor as if he had grown tire of the scenery.
Isabella retrieved a bowl of lukewarm broth and hunk of bread. The stranger’s hands shuddered as he reached for the bowl.
“What are you doing giving him our food. We may be here for some time.” Isabella bushed Tristan’s comment off with a raised eyebrow. Annoyed, Tristan turned his attention to the old man. “Who are you and where did you come from?”
“Tristan, can’t this wait?” asked Isabella.
“Have it your way, but when he’s finished, he going to answer some questions. We can’t trust anyone. All of our lives are at stake. His just being here is trouble. What do I do with him now? If I allow him to leave, he could talk. And, I can afford to assign a man to watch him twenty-four hours a day.
“He’s just an old man, Tristan. Besides…” Isabella paused, looking off for a split second. I…I feel like we’ve met before. She shook her head slightly, realizing how peculiar her words must have sounded.
“Oh, that’s just great. We should all feel reassured because you seen his face in a crowd somewhere. That cinches it then. He will be secured in the hall bathroom for the night…until we figure out what to do with him. Unless, of course, he identifies himself and tell us what he’s doing here. We searched the house from top to bottom. It was empty. No, there’s something not right here.
“What if he’s a Mystic?” added Asija.
“Then let him render something and I’ll let him go free,” answered Tristan, mockingly.
“You are consumed with anger, son?” muttered the old man, looking up form his broth.
Tristan, with scornful eyes, turned back to the old man. “After the Messiah pulled the nation back from the edge of the abyss, there was peace and plenty. The council, led by Mother Valora, kept the master’s word sacred. Under her spiritual leadership the nation flourished. Utopia was achieved. Each citizen was free to live and worship as he or she pleased. But, that has changed with the coming of Monrovia, the master’s unholy seed.
“Using her remarkable powers of persuasion, she has subjugated the will of the council. She has intimidated them into acquiescing to her twisted ambitions. By her thirtieth birthday, she had usurped the supremacy of the council and launched her reign of terror. Her first act was to expand the state police, including death quads. She outlawed all books, particularly books of faith. In the place she substituted her own Declarations, a corrupted version of her father teachings. Her state police have arrest or killed tens of thousands, many of which were friends of ours. One of my people is upstairs with a bullet in her, courtesy of Monrovia’s goons. It’s even rumored that she’s aligned herself with dark powers, that she performs unholy rites.
“The land has fallen as barren as her heart. Where there were once ceaseless harvests, there are now state rations. The return of hunger and poverty has summoned the most visceral demons of our past, crime and murder. To display works of art or bare religious symbols is an offense punishable by death. With each passing day, the nation sinks deeper into despair. So, pardon me for being a little angry.
“Tristan, we all feel the same way that you do or we wouldn’t be here,” Isabella broke in. “But, this old man is a victim the same as we. The only chance we have is to appeal to all those weary of a programmed existence, where every hour of our day is planned, where spiritual reflection and mediation has been replaced with mass ceremonies glorifying her name. Remember, the book that we found in last year?
“You mean the book that featured the three creatures and the girl, Dorothy, in search of a wizard,” answered Tristan. “How can we? You won’t let us forget it. And, at the end of their search, they discover that the wizard is a fake.”
“Naturally, you would forget the most important part of the story,” Isabella pointed out. “In the end, they learned that the help they sought resided within them all the while. There fears were unfounded. That is what the Messiah taught: it is done unto you as you believe. Maybe that is what the stranger is trying to say.”
“Yes, but, we’re not lions, tigers, and bears. And you are no Dorothy. And what’s more, there is no wizard. But, what we do have is a wicked witch, Monrovia. And like the witch in the story, her powers are real.”
“Has any of you every seen her,” the stranger asked. The stranger’s question drew chuckles from Tristan and some of the others.
“Yeah, we’ve dined in the palace on many occasions?” joked Tristan. Everyone but Isabella exploded with laughter. But, their mirth was violently interrupted by jarring rumble followed by a burst of lightening. Tristan’s face grew solemn. “No one has laid eyes on her in 50 years. She never leaves the citadel she calls a palace. Her wicked deeds are all committed by a proxy, a dark, villainous man.” Pivoting around, Tristan pointed to a Munoz, a lanky boy still in his teen. “Tell Trent and De Andre to get inside. I want them posted upstairs. First the old man, then the storm, some coincidence.”
“There is no such thing, mumbled the stranger.”
“What are you talking about old man,” barked Tristan.
“There is no such thing as a coincidence. Everything happens for a reason,” responded the old man.
“I’ve had about enough of you. You remain heedless to our questions, and yet you speak when no one cares to here your thoughts. For years the spiritual centers crammed that nonsense into our minds. We don’t need it from you.”
“Maybe, the message is sound, but your spirit is unwilling to listen.” Tristan, angered beyond control, stormed toward the old man. Isabella stepped between them. “The stranger is not a threat,” she said softly.
“And, exactly how do you know this, Isabella?” asked Tristan, regaining his composure.
“It’s like I known him all my life.”
“Oh, you know him, now. Be careful, Isabella. Next, you’ll be telling us that this old man is the Messiah returned to liberated the soul of nation from the clutches of his evil and tyrannical daughter.”
“You will not bait me into another conversation on the Messiah.”
“The Messiah lives,” proclaimed the stranger, robustly.”
“Ah, he wades in again,” Tristan balked. “And, what can you possibly know that we don’t?”
“I know that the fifth messenger lives.” I further know that he has a second daughter. Flora, his wife, gave birth to a set of twins.”
This time there was no laughter. “You are all as bad as Isabella,” admonished Tristan. “The stranger knows nothing. He’s just a vagrant. He is just one of the millions that the Monrovia’s propaganda machine claims doesn’t exist. Everyone knows that the Messiah had but one child.” Tristan’s words failed to recapture the group’s attention, as their eyes never left the stranger.
Isabella cleared her throat before speaking. “What he says may be true. There has always been quiet talk of a twin. You’ve heard the rumors yourself, Tristan.” Tristan was about to speak when Monroe called from the top of the stairs.
“Isabella, it’s Kendra. You better get up here.”
The group stormed up the stairs, all but Asija who was left behind to guard the prisoner. Isabella rushed to the side of his wounded comrade. Kendra had learned of the imminent crackdown and risked her life warning Tristan and Isabella. She succeeded, but only after taking a bullet in the side.
“I tried to wake her to see if he wanted to eat, but he wouldn’t respond,” said Monroe. Isabella grabbed a towel and basin off the nightstand. “She burning up with fever,” Isabella declared, dabbing friend’s forehead with the wet towel. “And, I’m afraid that she’s gone into shock. Maybe if we had with some antibiotics…”
“She’s dying,” interrupted the stranger crossing the threshold. Isabella continued pressing the cool compact to Kendra’s face.
“How did you get up here?” Tristan asked, his forehead undulated and his eyes knitted. Then Asija appeared in the doorway, slightly winded. “I turned my back for a second and he was gone. But, it was no way he could have made it up the stairs this quickly. I told you that he’s a Mystic.”
“Who are you, stranger,” Isabella asked, looking up from her feverish patient. Her question went ignored as the stranger proceeded to the side of the bed opposite her. He touched his palms to the young woman’s forehead and then ran both hands down the length of her body. “The bullet has torn into his vital organs and she’s bleeding internally.”
“We must get her to one of the spiritual health centers!” Isabella insisted.
“She will be dead before morning unless…” The old man stopped.
“Monroe, lock the old man in the bathroom for the night,” Tristan ordered, with disgust. “In the morning, I will take a team and see if we can scrounge up some medical supplies,” he said, looking at Isabella.
“What if the stranger is right?” asked Isabella. Tristan just shook his head and walked from the room.
That night while everyone but the lookouts were asleep, Isabella visited the old man.
“Without being seen, she slipped into the room. Once inside, she lit a candle. The old man was sitting up in the dark, as if he had been waiting for her.
“I’ve been expecting you,” he said.
“I came to apologize for Tristan. He wasn’t always the man you see. When we joined the underground, it was just to put out a crude newspaper. It was our way of fighting back. But, when Monrovia began her crackdown, we were forced to defend ourselves.
“We were all dreadfully inexperienced when it came to weapons and tactics. However, Tristan had an undiscovered talent. He instantly took charge. Under him and with support from the underground, we formed a cell. It was during this time that Tristan’s mood darkened and his devotion to the master’s teachings faltered. However, I have another reason for coming.
“I know why you came, Isabella. All things are possible if one has enough faith. Isn’t this what the master taught, are these not the words of the carpenter who preceded him. Man is divine by his very nature. His thoughts tie him to the Universal Mind, which is all that is. What he pours into the Great Void will be returned to him. Therefore, our true enemies are our very own fears, doubts and disbelief. You, my sister, can summon the supreme agency that lives in the realm of infinite possibilities if you but slay these three demons.
“You tell me nothing new, stranger. The spiritual centers and meditative retreats taught us that since we were all enough to attend.”
“That’s just it. It has been taught to you, instead of being demonstrated for you. As a consequence, the truth of the master’s words has lost its spiritual vitality. Its true meaning has been lost. After the master departed, Mother Valora lead the way, encouraging the spread of her son’s teachings as it spread throughout the world.
“However, she resisted direct interference. She understood that the son’s message was a mighty as the ocean, yet as delicate as a drop of dew on the rim of a rose pedal. That it, it couldn’t be institutionalized in the tradition of world religions.
Nations thought that they were fostering the messiah’s teachings, when in reality they were suppressing them. The Mother Valora with the help of the Mystics waded in to stem the tide. Nonetheless, schools, churches, and spiritual centers grew more dogmatic, their religious hierarchies growing in power and corruption. After her death, the Mystics soon withdrew to the mountains, practicing the teachings of the Messiah in seclusion.”
“ Are you a Mystic?”
“Can you save our friend?”
“No, but you can.”
“How, I harbor the same fears as Tristan and the others?”
“How long have you known your friend?”
“I’ve known Kendra all my life. She like a sister to me.”
“Do you love her?”
“Yes, as much as I love myself,” Isabella answered, her eyes teeming.
“Your love will be enough. Go to your friend and pray over her. Visualize her as she once was. Let your love for her open the door, and God will do the rest. Isabella left and entered her dying friend’s room and prayed through the night.
Tristan entered the room the next morning to find Isabella’s head resting on the foot of Kendra’s bed. “Isabella, wake up. We’re about to take off: I want you in charge. Several others entered just after him.
“There is no need to go?” she said, stretching and wiping the sleep from her eyes.
“What are you saying? Is she…?” All eyes turned to Kendra.
“No, just the opposite. Her fever has subsided and her pulse is growing stronger. She will be fine.” Just as she said that, Kendra’s fingers curled into a fist. Isabella smiled as Tristan, Monroe, Mooch, and Trent looked on in amazement.
“The old man’s prognosis was wrong,” added Tristan.
“No, his diagnosis was accurate. She was dying. He told me to pray for her. When I entered the room, her pulse rate was close to critical. And, there’s more. As I slept, I dreamed of Monrovia’s secret police. They have found us. Already, they’re swarming the hillside.” Before Tristan could fix his mouth to speak, Lee bolted into the room.
“Tristan, there is movement outside. I think that they’ve found us.” Tristan gazed long and hard at Isabella before he turned back Lee.
“I want everyone in position while I work out a plan of escape. Oh, and bring me the old man. Before Lee could relay his leader’s orders, an explosion jarred the house to its foundation.
“Call everyone together. It’s our only chance,” Isabella said, calmly yet resolutely.” Tristan stared her unblinking then looked over at Kendra, her eyes beginning to flutter open.
“Do as she says, yelled Tristan. After some hesitation, Lee tore from the room.
The entire group crammed into the room, deep concern on their faces. “They’ve blasted away the south wall, reported Monroe. “They’ll be pouring in soon enough. Up here, we trapped like rats. What do we do now?” Tristan gazed over at Isabella.
The sound of machine gun fire erupted. The group clutched their weapons as all eyes turned to the door. “Lay down your weapons,” said Isabella. The group stood motionless and confused.
“Do as she said,” Tristan commanded. One by one the heavy armaments hit the floor with multiple thuds.
“Are we surrendering” Monroe asked fretfully.
“On the contrary. Let us join hands in a circle,” said the stranger. Isabella was the first to reach out to the others. Soon they had formed a circle around the bed with Isabella holding one of Kendra’s hands and Tristan holding the other. “Now, close you eyes and visualize the house the way we found it last night,” the stranger instructed. “Envision the house as it was. See only that which was here when you arrived.”
The sound of heavy boots echoed up through the floor. Sporadic burst of gunfire rattled the walls and floors. Several men pulled away and gathered up their weapons. Not even Tristan could deter them from the course of self-preservation. Then Isabella gently called to them.
“My brothers, our guns will not save us now. It is only by our faith shall we be saved. Come now, join us.” Isabella, with the gentleness of a saint, reached out her hand. One after another, they relinquished their weapons and returned to the circle. The sound of boots rushing up their stairs failed to unnerve them this time. A few feet from the bedroom, they footsteps fell silent. Moments pass before they began to open their eyes.
Monroe was the first through the door. “They’ve gone,” he yelled, jubilantly.
No, they were never here,” said Isabella.
Downstairs they found the house was as it had been the night before. There was no sign of an explosion, or gunfire. It was like that only dreamed the attack. Their bags were even packed. Then, they realized that the stranger was among them.
“Search the house for the…” began Tristan.
“Don’t bother, he’s gone,” interrupted Isabella.
“What next, Tristan asked, looking at Isabella.
“We must go. The stranger gave us a mission.”
“What are you saying? What mission?”
“We must find Monrovia’s twin.” With that, the group followed Isabella out the front door and down the trail.